COLD, COLD ART
Christina the Lawyer expected there would be chilly nights. But not like this. It was, to put it bluntly, ridiculously cold. So now she is on the telephone, calling me from frigid Michigan, seeking a decent way out. Christina the Lawyer had enrolled in a class at the famous Ox-Bow summer school of the Art Institute of Chicago, located just outside the town of Saugatuck. She wanted to see if her talent somehow measured up. At least, she wanted to give it a try. "It was close to freezing last night," she is saying. "Right now I can see steam coming off the lagoon. There's no heat in our rooms. I don't have enough blankets and even with two pairs of wool socks and two sets of long underwear, I can't keep warm."
We are taking separate vacations. At this moment, I am perfectly content. I am sitting snugly in the library of an old friend's apartment on the 57th floor of the John Hancock building in Chicago. As we talk over the telephone, I can see out onto Lake Michigan for several miles. Somewhere on the other side of that same lake, Christina, her teeth chattering, is calling for help.
As a lawyer, she knows how to make the best case for her side.
"Come on up to Ox-Bow and I'll spring for a great pasta dinner," she says. "We'll stay in a great bed-and-breakfast place with a heated swimming pool. I'll go to school during the daytime and you'll have all day to read.
"There are some wonderful characters here at Ox-Bow," she says. "They're tremendously talented, too."
It's an offer I can't refuse.
You drive along a single, tree-lined dirt road into Ox-Bow, which takes up more than 100 acres set on a lagoon. There are 14 wooden buildings, all shaded by trees. There are studios, living quarters, a dining hall, even an outdoor glass-blowing facility with three furnaces.
The largest building was once a hotel, established before the turn of the century. Wealthy vacationers from Chicago once traveled directly across Lake Michigan by boat. The Art Institute of Chicago has run this school continuously for 78 years.
Beverly DeMario has been head chef at Ox-Bow for several years. She is a touch tyrannical in the kitchen but displays a distinctly artistic bent.
Chef Beverly leads me into a small room and invites me to sit down. A woman of indeterminate age, Chef Beverly has a strong jaw and an air of command about her. "I was born in Globe, Arizona," she says, "and had my first kitchen job under Danko Gurovich at the Copper Hills Inn when I was 14 years old.
"A great big lovable bear of man that Danko was, and still is," she says. "You know, he was a great friend of John Wayne's and so Wayne was around the Copper Hills a lot, too. I liked him. He never acted like a movie star."
Chef Beverly's experiences include working in the copper mines in Globe, going down the shaft with the men who quickly learned to respect her courage and work ethic.
"We all worked carefully down there below," she says. "Our lives depended on it."
She saw a fellow miner die suddenly one day. He lost his balance and fell into a crusher. "We couldn't get to him in time," she says.
Chef Beverly also has fonder memories of Globe.
"There was a time when it was one of the wealthiest communities in the country," she says. "Every family averaged about $40,000 a year because of the mines. What a paradise! There were immigrants from central Europe, Switzerland and Italy. And there were the Mexicans and the Apache Indians from San Carlos."
It was Danko who taught Chef Beverly how to take good care of people who work under her in kitchens.
"One time Danko went up to a big hotel in Scottsdale and hired what he referred to as a 'Black Hat Chef' from France to come down to Globe and run the kitchen at the Copper Hills.
"Danko put him up in a trailer on the property and paid him a great salary. He was a culinary genius. But he was also a tyrant.
"One week he kept me working late so that I was putting in something like 16 hours a day," Chef Beverly says, her eyes looking off into the distance and her head nodding at the memory.
"Danko came through the kitchen and saw me crying.
"What's the matter, little one?' Danko said.
"I told him about the overtime and how I needed to get some rest. Danko brought me and the chef together. He put his arms around both of us and the three of us stood there huddled in the kitchen.
"Look,' Danko told the chef, 'you're the greatest chef I know. But you must remember that when this little girl works for you, she's also giving us a part of her life. "'No matter how skilled we are in our jobs, we should be cautious as to how much of another's life we are willing to use for our own purposes.'
"After that little talk, the chef was very careful about asking me to work hours that were unreasonably long. And I have never done that to anyone who worked under me. All because of Danko."
Chef Beverly spends her winters in South Bend, Indiana, where she lectures students in various writing classes.
"I tell them romantic tales about Globe and how we had the last hanging in 1945 and actually had a whorehouse listed in the phone book until about the same time."
As a teenager, Chef Beverly spent three years hitchhiking cross-country. When she ran out of money, she would wire Danko Gurovich for car fare home.
"I have an incredible memory," she says. "I have learned about passion. I have learned about respect.
"Something else," she says. "I have learned that the most important resource we have is people, not computers. I've been around long enough to know the difference between bullshit and the real stuff."
Donna Groot is spending the summer painting water lilies. She is a tall, angular woman with high cheekbones and the drawn look of a model. At Ox-Bow on a partial scholarship, she works three meals a day in the kitchen under Chef Beverly, and she wears Levis and a sweatshirt. "I look around me and see all these incredibly talented people and learn they are only 22," she says. "I didn't even begin painting until I was 22."
In her small studio, Groot has placed a water lily in a vase atop a three-foot-high table. She paints the same thing over and over. Sometimes the colors change.
She shows me some copy she has written for a brochure that she hopes will make it possible to have a showing of her own.
"I am painting the water lilies in the lagoon. This flower has a spirit of its own. I am searching for the essence of things. "There is happiness but there is also sadness. I'm not afraid to let the color speak for itself."
Groot watches closely as I read, perhaps wondering what I think about her writing skills.
"This is one of the first flowers, they come from the beginning of time."
She tells me her painting all comes from memories of the past.
"There was a trip to the Mediterranean, to Spain and Greece. They provide impetus. There was the incredible color of the sea.
"But my water lilies are inspired by a canoe trip here at Ox-Bow. I find it fascinating how they can at the same time float and be so deeply rooted."
Groot peers deeply into the bright yellow flower on the canvas in front of her. It is a great size, enough to dominate a very big room.
"It all comes out of your hand," she says, almost surprised. "It is, after all, only the manipulation of paint on canvas."
Donna Groot holds up her left hand. She smiles and nods knowingly.
As an art school, Ox-Bow ranks with Yaddo in Saratoga Springs in New York and with McDowell in New Hampshire. The students this year range from 17 to 73 and they come from all parts of the United States. The tuition is high and they love the chance to get away to a spot where they can work though the entire night to finish a project if they so choose.
Danny Marder, 26, toured the country with a rock n' roll band for four years. He played the guitar, saxophone, keyboards and wrote songs. Now he's a full-time student at the Art Institute of Chicago. This summer he is learning, among other things, the art of glass blowing.
The son of a deceased surgeon, Danny's appearance is singular, if not fearsome. As a rock performer, Danny was accustomed to wearing black. Now Danny walks about camp wearing a black leather jacket, black pants and black shoes. With a pair of shears, he gave himself a haircut. So part of his head is shaved, Mohawk-style. But the lines of his hair aren't straight. It is as if the ritual were performed by a drunken medicine man. "When I was growing up, everyone was selling drugs and I was singing in bars," he says. "Somehow it seemed more ethical."
"He's so great," Danny says. "For me it doesn't come easy."
You watch the furnaces glow. You feel the intense heat and you see the ease with which the young Japanese artist works. Beside him there is an unusually tall woman who is working every bit as hard and as long. She is spending the summer making glass baby pacifiers.
Danny insists he made an artistic breakthrough. The tale, apocryphal or not, has become the talk of the camp. Late one night, while assured of privacy, Danny created a painting by employing his penis rather than a paint brush.
Danny laughs uproariously: "If you didn't know, you'd think it was a finger painting," he says.
The subject of hard times in the art world is not far from the surface.
Bob McClurg has two part-time jobs. He teaches at both the Art Institute of Chicago and Barat College in suburban Chicago. His job at the Art Institute pays $11,000 a year.
"I was teaching at East Texas State Teachers College for $15,000 a year," he says, "but I gladly accepted less money because I realized how much prestige there was in Chicago."
Bob Sennhauser teaches at Montclair State Teachers College in New Jersey but is being interviewed soon for a job that will pay him a higher salary.
"I suppose I should be flattered because I've made the short list of five from a huge list," Sennhauser says.
"But I can't help wondering about it all. There are so many applicants with strong artistic backgrounds that they could just take all our portfolios and roll them down the stairs and pick out a winner."
McClurg shows me some slides of his ceramic work. We stand in a darkened room and he flashes the images on the wall.
The figures are wonderful, but I don't even know what they are. Are they ashtrays? Are they decorative pots for the living room? I am so ignorant I'm even afraid to ask, fearing that if McClurg knows how little I know that he will walk away in disgust.
"I play a game with myself," McClurg says, explaining the pieces he flashes on the wall. "I was a Catholic, so these images might be the Roman Catholic church. See how warm they seem. Notice, however, there is something uncomfortable about them, as if there is no place to sit. It is like the church. You can be inside and protected but you can't be comfortable there."
Rich Hungerford is a supremely talented paper maker and artist who has been working to create a body of work for an anniversary show at Ellis Island in New York City.
He has been teaching for years and recently became interested when a job opened up at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
"There were 500 applicants," he said, "and the job paid $15,000."
Since he is a faculty member, Hungerford has been given a cabin which has its own bath facilities. All the students must use communal showers and toilets.
I ask to see his work and Hungerford leads me to his small cabin. He creates his own paper and then paints upon it.
For six months now, Hungerford has been preparing for the Ellis Island exhibition. Here is how it works. A selected group of artists all over the country was sent photographs of artifacts found at the immigration site from the days when everyone's ancestors were entering the country.
From this Hungerford has created an extremely moving painting on which you can see Native Americans, immigrants, a large chair painted yellow and multiple eyes meant to represent all who passed under the Statue of Liberty.
"Will you frame it?" I ask.
Hungerford looks at me with a startled expression. He has a two-week growth of beard.
"I would never frame my work," he says. "That's an attitude toward art, I guess. By the very act of framing it, you make a statement that this is important. You secularize the work.
"Besides, I think a frame makes the piece lose depth. The glass acts as a barrier."
Hungerford tells me to watch what happens as he turns out the lights in the room.
The lights go out. Everything is in darkness, and then the large gold chair at the bottom of the painting comes to life. It glows in the dark!
"The people who clean the library or the art museum where it's hanging will see it," he says.
"It's important that they enjoy it, too."
Leaving Ox-Bow on the final day, I think about some of the really fine work these people are doing. Glady I would offer to buy some of it.
But how much do you offer? Do you insult them by offering what you think you can afford? So I leave without making an offer.
And then I wonder. Wouldn't they have been glad just to hear that someone really wanted to buy?
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